My words make them laugh with delight. Their hearts beat in time as they listen to me speak, waiting for the end in anticipation, for the suspense to be lifted, for them to return home and share these words with their loved ones, and to laugh once again as they relive them.
I bring a twinkle in their eyes – eyes that have seen so much, gone through days of fire and smoke, days of anxiety, days without food and comfort. It was still visible. Their tear stains seemed permanently etched on their faces, never drying.
I'm standing in front of a reasonably large gathering of people who are ready to laugh their concerns away. They think it's a tremendous responsibility. I call it an obligation.
This day began with a few encouraging words, a few giggles, and soon I would be getting home, sit on my couch, and be retelling my own words to laugh aloud, and nothing but a dry weep would come out.
It's tough to breathe when you have to fake everything in order to carry out a responsibility that you took not out of goodness of heart, but rather out of guilt.
People mostly overlook my grin. It isn't appealing enough, or perhaps it isn't genuine enough to provide them with a sense of security. My words become more of a shield than my grin.
This war has given us many things, but none to be happy about. There is pride gleaming in their eyes, but grief is also peeking out.
Every morning when I wake up, my eyes are drawn to my reflection in the mirror. I promise I'm not obsessed with myself, but seeing my face first thing in the morning reminds me of what I've lost.
The mirror shows a bit of myself that remains amidst the shattered parts, rescued by my morality or lack thereof.
This conflict has stolen a lot of things away from us, and left us mourning. The eyes have been robbed of their radiance, the smile has vanished from the lips, and the throat is dry and unable to cry.
I had a friend. He was endearing. The ideal son, the best friend, he was loved. Brave, they call him. Cruel, is what he is to me.
We were young. We ran about the lovely meadows, using the golden labyrinth as a playground, and played for hours, oblivious about the rest of the world. We lay in the dark, counting stars as we fell into a deep slumber. We ate what we received but never without grumbling, we were irresponsible, we caused mischief, but in the end, we were happy, without a scowl or suspicion.
However, his lies tarnished these lovely memories. His promises were broken, his smile became a deception, and his friendship evaporated - it's still around me, but I can't feel it.
Memories should fade as time passes, and fade they did but one.
We were laying in our bed, discussing what we would do after our schooling was done, when he uttered those words that changed everything.
That was the end of it. He departed to fight for his nation. He was patriotic, courageous, and charming, but not loyal. He ignored my words, our disagreements, and our friendship and proceeded to play with his life willingly.
I wanted to attack him, drag him away from the door, and simply lock him inside. I wanted to persuade him. But I didn't do any of them but gaze at him. My words whirled about in my tongue, never making it out.
“Don't I deserve one last smile?” Tears streamed down my cheeks as I asked.
“Last? Do you not believe me? I'll make it out alive. I'm not going to die there.” He stated.
“I don't believe in this war, those weapons, or their aims. I don't believe in your bravery that can border recklessness or your commitment to your own life. I don't think you'll come back. And I don't want to forget your grin, even if it turns bitter. I will always remember you as a patriot.”
“Not as a friend?”
“As a gallant soldier.”
That night turned into several mornings, but I never saw that smile again.
I never saw his eyes sparkle in the sun, never saw his exaggerated gestures, never heard his compliments or encouragement again.
He was brave to depart in such a manner. When his body returned without his grin, words, or cheers, his parents sobbed uncontrollably. They broke down there and then. And I felt a stinging resentment creeping up inside of me. He helped save the country, but he left his family in shambles. He is a martyr, yet his memories lay there bare with bitterness slowly tainting them.
His parents were very proud of their son's bravery, but one cannot ignore the unshed tears, the anguish concealed beneath their pride.
I forfeited from fighting in the war. I wished to be with my family, see their smiles for as long as I can. There is relief in their eyes to see me alive but it is overshadowed by the disappointment. For them, I proved to be a coward. They never witnessed my love for them, never saw my fortitude in enduring their disappointment every day, never saw my wailing eyes.
Is sorrow better than disappointment? Is pride better than relief?
Should I have just laid my life out for this nation?
All these thoughts crowned a never-ending sense of guilt. It weighs me down every day and has become the only reason that keeps me alive.
I glance at my audience, their eyes widening as they wait for my words to soothe them.
Every day is the same, but today I hope for a change – for me to feel relieved if not joyful.
“We've all been brave to survive for so long. We are courageous to have gone on without our fears, cries, and guilt consuming us. It is not a crime to live apart from our loved ones.” I could see a couple of them crying.
“Today, I will not sugar coat my remarks, nor will I say consoling things, but the reality will show through. I didn't fight in the war, but I did survive. Shouldn't I be happy? I am still alive.” The hall was deafeningly quiet.
“I desired to live for a few more years. I fought with my brave companion. We shall all perish in this war, he said, either fighting or starving. He decided to die with dignity and honor. I agree with him, I agree. But a small wicked voice tells me that I am still alive while he is not. I can see my parents, but he cannot.” I paused
I was met with a few blank stares, as well as a few furious faces. They came here hoping to find solace in me and be saved from the depths of despair, if only for a few minutes, but all they found today was my dread, agony, and suffering. And all they saw was me humiliating their valiant fighters for choosing to battle.
“I am not justified in any way. I am alive but not living. He is dead, still is living, intact in our memories. He is a martyr. I shall always be proud of him, but somewhere in the corner, I feel guilty to have never tried enough to convince him to simply stay with me. Would he have stayed if I had given it my all? Or would he have never died if I went with him to the battlefield?” I took a deep breath and uttered the words I never wanted to say.
“Wasn't his decision better? He died remembering his parents' love and my friendship, and I am now living without them both. Today, I expressed my thoughts that were always accompanied by bitter memories. I've exposed myself here. Consider if I or he was right.”
“I don’t expect you to accept my thoughts. Perhaps take them as words of comfort. I am not happy, not always joyous but I can always make your lives peaceful even if only for a few minutes. Maybe you can experience serenity too if you just accepted your guilt.”
For the first time, I walked away with silence behind me.
I stepped out into the sunshine, relieved, satisfied. I may not be happy but I am pleased to have provided them with answers that may never lead them to me to find peace.